Mzungu's Travels

At the end of October, 2013 I will be traveling to Eastern Uganda to shoot some video of health  and education programs in the Kapchorwa Region.  I've set up this page to be a blog and a running account of my adventures and misadventures.

I'm sure you've heard other stories from Americans who have traveled to developing countries to spend a week or so on some important volunteer project.  And while those are important, as I see it there is an important distinction between this journey and every one else's project.  We're talking about me.


Solving for Variable Why

One of the more difficult questions people have been asking me lately is, "Why the heck are you going to Africa?" Actually with my friends it's usually not heck.” 

The short answer is that I'm going to be creating a series of informational end educational videos on development efforts in the area around Mt. Elgon in Eastern Uganda. That's interesting and honest, but it doesn't really answer the question.  I told you what I expect to be doing, not why. 

 Mt. Elgon, Uganda (left) is officially two feet shorter than California's Mt. Shasta near where I grew up.  Maybe I should stack up a couple of rocks. 

 When there's a major disaster in the developing world the devastation can be immense.  Sometimes tens of thousands of people lose their homes, their livelihoods and even their lives.  When stories of these tragedies reach the industrialized world many people open their wallets and that's wonderful, but it really only helps with the immediate problem.  The lack of education, jobs and many aspects of a functioning society are still missing.  People will be hurt just as badly when the next disaster comes along.  It is only by creating a functioning infrastructure and economy that a stable self reliant society can emerge. The videos I will be creating our going to help with projects involving healthcare, literacy and community leadership. 

So that's why it's important for me to go.  It still doesn't explain why I'm going.

I read an article recently about college entrance essays.  One of the papers evaluators dread is what they call, The Missionary Story.  They’re all about the same: they start with a young person going to some faraway place to work on a special project like building a school.  They tell a couple of stories and then end with some variation on the phrase, "I went to Gwandonaland thinking I could change things for the people there, but the one who ended up changing the most was me."

A little gaggy, but reasonably honest.  Traveling to places you've never been, meeting different people and doing something to help will certainly change the perspective of a young person.  Adventures and new experiences are what build memories.  But I’m not a young person, and my perspectives are fairly set.

Reasons aren't always easy to see even in ourselves.  The other day at the airport I stopped to help an old woman who was struggling with some large suitcases.  It seemed like the obvious thing to do, but I can’t really tell you if I did it because I was concerned about the wellbeing of a person I will never see again, because other people were watching, or just because I wanted to feel self righteously better than all the people who were just standing there.

From her perspective it didn’t make any difference why I helped her, she just needed a hand.  I suppose I could have walked up to her and said: "Madam I can see you are having a lot of difficulty with those bags.  I want you to know I sympathize with you in your pain, and I would be glad to help you, but I'm afraid I'd only be doing it to appease my own self righteous ego.  So rather than interfere for my own benefit I think it more honest to stand here and watch you struggle."

Probably the greatest fear for anyone who works in the arts is not being exploited or even the harsh financial challenges, it’s being irrelevant.  Making a series of web videos may not be the most creatively satisfying venture and certainly won’t be remunerative, but if they might help improve the situation of hundreds of people that means I’m relevant.

So, why am I going?  Because I want to.  Maybe I’m having a midlife crisis and this is cheaper than a Porsche.  Whatever personal justifications may be going on inside my head don’t really make any difference.  It's enough that the good gets done.  Oh, and there's also going to be a total solar eclipse I want to see.



Your Beast of Burden

It seems odd to me that in this modern world one of the main methods for transporting goods to the developing world is carry-on luggage.

"Ah, you're going to Uganda, here are 50 pairs of eyeglasses we need you to take with you."

Please note that the preceding sentence  doesn't start with, "Do you have room?" or even "How much do you think you can carry?"  Instead it's simpy, "Here are some eyeglasses.  Oh, and I need you to bring along a couple of laptop computers too."

"Well I'm only allowed two checked bags . . ."

"Oh, don't be silly, you can't put electronic items in your checked luggage, the customs agents will steal them.  And can you imagine what would happen to the eyeglasses in the baggage compartment?  You can just put them in your carry-on."

Somehow omitted in this discussion is the $9,000 worth of video gear I'm already planning on taking. But since I work for an airline I do have a pretty good idea of what would happen to glasses in the baggage comparment - they'd be on the bottom of the stack on the left.

The corruption is a bigger problem.  Every society is going to have a certain number of reprobates and when there's a relatively unskilled job in which you can make as much in a couple of bribes as the average person can make in a month . . . well they're going to tend to be drawn to those jobs.

"How about some fruitcake?  You know people in Africa have never tried my fruitcake, why don't you bring some of that in your carry-on luggage as well?"

Customs agents might not be that tempted by fruitcake.

The reality is I probably can find a way to pack most of this stuff, although I don't know how I'm going to convince a customs agent that I'm bringing two laptops for personal use.  I was going to bring one of my own that was actually for personal use, but I think that's out right now.

But I'm leaving out part of the reason for my resistance.  The truth is I was anticipating a ten hour layover in Dubai.  That's a whole day to explore the bizarre overdeveloped Sheikdom - site of a half mile high skyscraper and the world's only indoor skiing resort. Now I'm looking forward to ten hours sitting in a terminal watching a stack of luggage.

"Well, if that's how you feel, I guess I understand.  I could hardly expect you to give up a day of wandering  through the desert just so another 50 people would have a chance to see."

"Okay, I'll take your junk, but I'm eating the fruitcake myself."

Page 1 2